Georgia Prevented Illicit HEU Sale, President Says

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said yesterday authorities in his nation last month seized weapon-grade uranium intended to be traded through the black market, the London Guardian reported (see GSN, Feb. 27, 2009).

The 70 percent enriched uranium, believed to be usable in an improvised nuclear weapon, was confiscated during an undercover operation conducted by security officials in Tsibilisi, the Georgian leader said during the Obama administration’s nuclear security summit in Washington. The nationality of the group selling the material was not disclosed.

While only a few grams of highly enriched uranium were seized, authorities believe the suspects had access to a larger amount for sale. A working nuclear weapon requires 25 kilograms of the material, according to the Guardian.

“The Georgian Ministry of Interior has foiled eight attempts of illicit trafficking of enriched uranium during the last 10 years, including several cases of weapons grade enrichment,” Saakashvili said. “Criminals associated with these attempts have been detained.”

In 2006, a Russian national was arrested in Georgia for attempting to traffic 100 grams of weapon-grade uranium (see GSN, April 2, 2007). The man, Oleg Khinsagov, similarly suggested he was holding only a fraction of a much larger amount of the illicit material.

“One of the troubling things about past cases in Georgia is that there was some evidence that this was the activity of an organized criminal group and they were selling lots from the same batch of material,” Matthew Bunn, a nuclear security expert at Harvard University, said. “It’s an interesting question whether this is the same group.”

He added: “I hope this puts the fear of God into other leaders and convinces them that this is a real problem and an ongoing problem” (Julian Borger, London Guardian, April 14).